Utah ex-con starts college scholarship for kids of inmates
After a high school dance, Lisa Curtis was watching TV with friends when she saw her father's home surrounded by police officers on the news. Her stomach dropped, her face paled, and so began the next 17 years of her life living with the stigma of having a parent behind bars.
Curtis, now 40 and with a child of her own, recalls the inner-turmoil she felt growing up: Avoiding questions from friends about where her father was. Watching important milestones, like high school graduation, pass by without a dad to cheer her on in the audience. Working since she was 12 years old, selling candy door to door, just so her financially struggling family could get by.
"I just couldn't tell people. I wasn't comfortable telling people where my dad was and I was really embarrassed," said Curtis. "It was hard for me to have really, really close friends because of that secretiveness."
Curtis went on to graduate from Provo High and earn two college degrees. And through visits to the Utah State Prison, she continued a relationship with her father, Karl "Willy" Winsness convicted by a Salt Lake City jury in 1988 for shooting and nearly killing a Salt Lake County Sheriff's Deputy who was in the process of serving a "no-knock" search warrant at Winsness' home.
The subsequent years Winsness spent in prison gave him plenty of time to think about the opportunity he missed to raise Curtis and her sister, Jamie Ainsworth. So he set a new goal for himself as he worked toward righting wrongs from the past upon his 2004 parole: Helping the children of other inmates.
Winsness is a step closer to completing that plan after joining with the Community Foundation of Utah a tax-exempt public charity that helps citizens turn their philanthropic dreams into reality to create what he has dubbed the "Willy the Plumber Scholarship." The scholarship plans to award college-bound students with $1,000 and $500 scholarships every year starting in 2013.
The only application requirement? The students must have an incarcerated parent along with a desire to gain an education.
"Aren't they pretty much forgotten? Children of inmates?" said Winsness, 62, who started his own plumbing business in West Valley City. "Inmates deserve whatever they get...But the children haven't done anything wrong."
The scholarship •Winsness was leading a hardscrabble life the night police officers arrived at his door on Jan. 22, 1988.
An admitted drug dealer, Winsness, then 37, was high on heroin when six deputies delivered the search warrant at his Rose Park home, according to court documents.
Deputies claimed they yelled "sheriff's office" moments before Winsness would fire five shots toward the door, with one bullet piercing a deputy's chest.
Winsness' attorney argued at trial that his client fired in self-defense and thought he was being robbed. Winsness to this day disputes that deputies identified themselves before kicking down his front door.
A jury nonetheless convicted Winsness of attempted murder and he was ordered to serve five years to life in prison. He would end up spending 17 years there.
As Winsness spent nearly two decades in prison, his daughters made the decisions that would shape the rest of their lives without the help they desired from their father.
Curtis would have felt more pressure to do well at school if her father had been around, she said. Having a parent to look up to would have motivated her to work harder.
"I really feel like if you have both parents in the home you get read to more, you get encouraged to do well," Curtis said.
But the heaviest repercussion of her father's absence was psychological, she said.
Winsness' other daughter, Jamie Ainsworth, was raised differently than Curtis. Because the sisters have different mothers and Ainsworth's mother was incarcerated as well, she grew up in the foster care system.
"There was no one out there for me," Ainsworth said. "I think that was one of the hardest things: him not being able to be there as a father or as a role model."
She got pregnant when she was 15 and later served time in prison for embezzlement. She wonders if things could have turned out differently when she was younger had her parents been in her life.
"When I had done my crimes I thought if I dressed the best, put my son into a private school or drove the nicest cars I would be loved. None of those things make me who I am," said Ainsworth.
The difficulties his daughters experienced had a profound effect on Winsness, he said. He worked hard to stay out of trouble when placed on parole in 2004 and eventually was terminated from custody in 2007 after completing his time.
By 2011, Winsness had established himself as a plumber and that's when he started to work to make his scholarship idea a reality for the children of inmates, a group he calls "forgotten victims."
Kids with parents in prison don't grow up thinking they'll one day go to college, Winsness said. A scholarship could foster a belief that children of inmates can finish high school and they can receive a college education, he said.
Convincing organizations to help Winsness administer the scholarship has been a process.
The Community Foundation of Utah, however, recently signed on with enthusiasm. Winsness provided the idea, the terms and the initial endowment for the scholarship, and the foundation will take care of the rest, said executive director Fraser Nelson.
"We provide the means, structure and backbone [for the scholarship]," said Nelson.
The foundation believes that anybody can be a philanthropist, Nelson said, and the work they're doing with Winsness is a testament to that. "We're all responsible for the future of our residents and you don't have to be [a] super rich zillionaire to make a difference," she said.
The Utah Department of Corrections also supports Winsness' efforts, said spokesman Steve Gehrke, just as the department supports most initiatives that try to help inmates successfully reenter society.
"The prison and Corrections are generally supportive of any measure that promotes our mission of promoting public safety and giving offenders the tools needed to succeed. This particular effort could in theory prevent prison from becoming a generational problem," said Gehrke of Winsness' scholarship.
A population in need •Winsness' children are hardly alone in navigating their childhoods with a parent in prison.
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 2010 the most recent statistics availableabout 7.1 million people, or 1 in 33 adults nationwide, were under the supervision of adult correctional authorities. That number includes 2.3 million offenders incarcerated in state and federal prisons and local jails, the agency's numbers show.
Utah's current prison population sits at 6,890, according to Utah Department of Corrections statistics, with hundreds more locked up in county jails.
That leaves hundreds of Utah children without resources and guidance as their parents serve out sentences, said Michele Beckstrand, north region coordinator for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Utah (BBBSU), who has worked with hundreds of children and their guardians and incarcerated parents through mentoring programs sponsored by her organization.
When BBBSU received a grant in 2007 to Mentor Children of Prisoners (MCP), it started looking for a population to serve and was surprised to find many children with parents in jail had already turned to BBBSU, she said. She added the organization was also taken aback to find that when reaching out to the school districts to find these children to mentor, that many school officials didn't know they had students with parents in prison in their schools.
"If you don't even know who has that situation how can you help them?" asked Beckstrand. "We need to do a better job in society of knowing who these kids are and then making sure that we do have more supports in place [for them]," she said.
The MCP grant has now run out at BBBSU, and the organization is scrambling to keep track of the 146 children with incarcerated parents that they're still mentoring. Since 2007, they've mentored 521 such children. Beckstrand said the organization is committed to continuing mentoring efforts, even though it doesn't have the money and resources it used to.
Winsness' daughters are both sympathetic to children like those who've received help through BBBSU.
Ainsworth said that the children of inmates need particular help because they are at a disadvantage. "People do need to step in... You already feel like the world sucks," she said.
Learning to hope • Although Curtis can't change a past lived without a father around daily, she's supportive of Winsness' efforts to make a difference in the lives of children in situations similar to that of her own childhood.
She said her father is a good person and he believes in the value of education.
"He knew, and he knows, how much it took and how much of a struggle it was for me to get where I am today," Curtis said. "He just wants to improve a few people's lives."
Winsness is now working to get information about the scholarship out to the community, and he hopes to watch it grow. He plans to donate more funds to the scholarship every year, and he wants other inmates to do the same, even if it's just a dollar or two a year.
He wants the children whose parents have made mistakes to commit to becoming educated. That's his whole purpose in creating the scholarship, he said.
He has vowed he'll never go back to prison. If that happened he would never see his daughters and three grandchildren again and he has already missed out on enough, he said.
"I'm just too old to start over," said Winsness. "Failure is no option."
Ainsworth is also focused on a brighter future. She has been out of prison for six years and is in contact with her father regularly. She takes care of her two children one who was diagnosed with severe autism and attends classes at Salt Lake Community College.
She applauds her fathers efforts in making a scholarship happen. She said the scholarship gives people like her hope.
"The dream is alive, just believe in yourself," Ainsworth said of what she'd like to tell children of incarcerated parents. "There's people out there that actually believe in you."
About the scholarship
What • The "Willy the Plumber Scholarship Fund" was created by a former inmate to further the education or training of students whose parents are serving sentences in Utah's correctional facilities or have a history of chronic incarceration.
How • In its first year, applications are due Feb. 28, 2013. A scholarship committee will meet and select recipients in March, and in April applicants will be notified. Award checks will be sent directly to the institutions of the student's choice in August.
More • Information on the scholarship can be found by calling 801-559-3005 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
Donate • Online at http://utahcf.org/
Prison inmates given resources to improve parenting skills
While children with incarcerated parents often struggle on the outside, prison programs aim to improve parenting skills for those locked up.
Utah Department of Corrections officials say they realize children suffer when their parents are away, said Lee Liston, correctional administrator for the division of programming at the department.
"We all concur when it comes to children they're casualties, true casualties when it comes to incarceration," said Liston.
The trials of the children of inmates are often not well-known, said Craig Burr, division director of programming for the department.
To prepare offenders to become better parents once they're reunited with their children upon release from prison, the department sponsors a host of programs. Some initiatives include:
Bedtime stories • Inmates are given the opportunity to audio record themselves reading a bedtime story. The recording is then delivered to the children as a reminder of their parents' continuing care. The program, in its 7th year, is very popular, said Liston, and especially successful with incarcerated mothers.
YPrep • Your Parole Requires Extensive Preparation (YPrep) helps inmates make connections with employment, health, finance and other resources before they go on parole. In this program the resources are brought to them while still incarcerated. Burr said making a connection with a rehabilitation office, for example, before inmates are released helps them to make the transition back into society easier for them and their families.
One aspect of the program includes temporarily removing inmates from the prison setting so that they can practice increasing professional skills like interviewing. Inmates can practice job skills in a room remodeled to look like an office.
Parenting classes • Parenting classes are available to certain inmates who've had their needs assessed upon arrival at the prison and meet the criteria for such classes, said Burr. Along with teaching basic parenting skills, the classes help inmates create connections with their children through regular visits to the prison.
Even if a parent was doing well before incarceration, Liston said, by the time they leave prison the child has developed new relationships to perhaps replace the one they had with a parent. That is why helping the offenders re-establish emotional connections with their children is important and will overall help the parents become more successful after leaving prison.